|June 3, 2007 / New York TIMES
Shattering Stereotypes About Immigrant Workers
By DANIEL ALTMAN
AS immigration legislation slowly makes its way through Congress, the
debate about illegal immigrants' role in the economy has intensified.
To some people, they represent a black-market work force that is
lowering the wages of legal immigrants and native-born Americans. To
others, they are an essential part of several big industries. What's
Getting the whole truth is not easy, because illegal immigrants are
not always easy to find, interview or otherwise include in government
or private surveys. But some broad facts seem to be emerging, and they
may shatter some preconceived notions: illegal immigrants do not just
pick fruit, they do not just work off the books, they rarely earn less
than the minimum wage and they may even be raising employment without
For example, there are plenty of illegal immigrants who are not
working on farms along the West Coast, gardening or providing child
care, according to figures from the Pew Hispanic Center, a research
group in Washington. About 20 percent of illegal immigrants work in
construction, 17 percent in leisure and hospitality industries, 14
percent in manufacturing and 11 percent in wholesale and retail trade.
In addition, illegal immigrants represent a substantial share of
overall employment in quite a few industries, some of which require
extensive skills and training. They may make up at least 10 percent of
the work force in construction, leisure and hospitality, and in
agriculture and related industries, according to figures calculated by
the Pew Hispanic Center. But in specific occupations like cooking,
painting, washing cars, packaging by hand and installation of carpets
and floors, they may make up 20 percent or more.
Those industries badly need immigrant labor, far in excess of
government quotas for legal immigrants. "We need a million-plus
workers added to our work force over the next five or six years, and
that is associated with people leaving the work force and obviously
the forecasted growth in construction," said Wayne A. Crew, executive
director of the Construction Industry Institute, an industry-sponsored
research group at the University of Texas at Austin. "The numbers I've
seen also indicate that about 60 percent or so of the new workers
coming into the industry are Hispanic or Latino. So you can start to
understand if you can expect that 600,000 of the new workers you're
going to need are in fact coming from somewhere else, then if they
don't come, it puts a bit of a stretch on your labor force."
A shortage of immigrant labor picking fruit on farms in the West has
indeed made the news recently, but it disguises a much larger issue.
Illegal immigrants also help big agribusinesses to keep prices low by
working in processing and packaging, said Katherine A. Ozer, executive
director of the National Family Farm Coalition, a lobbying group in
Washington. Though family farms may depend on them to a lesser extent,
she said, dairies and other operations do need immigrant labor.
Without them, she said, the structure of the industry would have to
In many cases, the jobs held by illegal immigrants are far from the
minimum- or subminimum-wage stereotype, as well. Though the work
itself is often unpleasant, the pay rates are commonly in the range of
$10 to $20 an hour, said Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior research
associate at the Pew center.
"There are some indications that the majority of these workers, maybe
55 to 65 percent, are not in the underground economy," Mr. Passel
said. "They're getting paid the same wage rates as everybody else is
in those companies. It's written down, and if they work there long
enough, they'll get health insurance and everything else."
The obvious question is how these immigrants' presence is affecting
the overall labor market, especially in these midlevel occupations.
Using Mr. Passel's figures, it seems likely that there are about eight
million illegal immigrants with jobs right now. That is quite a bit
more than the roughly 6.5 million unemployed people counted by the
Census Bureau (some of whom might actually be illegal immigrants).
Even if all illegal immigrants were deported overnight — the current
bill would instead offer them a path to legal status — the rest of the
work force might not be able to fill their jobs.
Indeed, the presence of illegal immigrants may actually be increasing
overall employment, and at little cost to wages, suggested Robert J.
LaLonde, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago. He
said that these immigrants increase the overall supply of labor. If
demand remains the same, their presence raises the number of jobs in
the economy but lowers wages for everyone. But Professor LaLonde said
that demand for labor is likely to increase, too, as investment money
follows immigrant workers into the country.
"The evidence of the effect they have on labor markets in terms of
depressing the wages of native-born Americans is quite unclear," he
said. "Capital is a much more mobile factor than labor is, so if
labor's moving in, you better believe that capital's not too far
Professor LaLonde added that the presence of illegal immigrants in
some service jobs makes it easier for Americans to participate in the
labor force. The immigrants act as complements to higher-wage workers,
who can then participate in greater numbers and become more
productive. For instance, he said, "it's easier for women to work
because you can hire more baby-sitters."
Still, if illegal immigrants are often working side by side with
native-born Americans and legal immigrants, it is worth asking whether
they are reducing opportunities for others. Professor LaLonde
dismissed that as unlikely, because in many cases an illegal immigrant
may offer a combination of skills and cost that other workers simply
Potential American competitors "would like these jobs, but they don't
want to work at the lower price," Professor LaLonde said. "Mexican day
labor doesn't get paid $5 an hour; they're getting paid $8 or $9 an
hour. But if you're going to try to beat them at their own game, given
that you're not as qualified as they are, you're going to have to
undercut their price."
IF illegal immigrants weren't present at all, Professor LaLonde
conceded, others might have more incentive to train for those
occupations. "But over all, the U.S. would be poorer," he said. That
is something for members of Congress to think about as they amend the
Moreover, existing training programs have not necessarily resulted in
a big influx of native-born Americans into immigrant-heavy industries.
"The construction industry, at least, is viewed as an unattractive
industry," Mr. Crew said. "Other industries are competing for those
same people, so the wages in those industries are rising at the same
time. It's a competition for people."